RMOW needs to deal with DEStressing heat system 

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - Part of one of the systems in Cheakamus
  • photo submitted
  • Part of one of the systems in Cheakamus

Baby, it's cold outside. OK, maybe it isn't that cold this winter but it's too cold to pull on an extra sweater and turn off the heat inside your posh cave.

So when you run out of extra sweaters, what do you do? If you are like almost everyone living in the Great White North, you turn up the thermostat. If you answered, "Jump in the hot tub," check yourself for gills and get serious for a moment.

What happens when you turn up the thermostat? Again, if you live well under the Bell curve, your electric baseboard heaters start to get warm, then hot and your cave starts to approximate a comfortable temperature. Or maybe your gas furnace comes on with an audible whoosh and begins to fill the cave with warm air. Or a similar but different whoosh if your furnace is fuelled by heating oil.

But if you live in Whistler's "award-winning" Olympic legacy neighbourhood, Cheakamus Crossing (CC), you cross your fingers and say a quick prayer that no single element in your Rube Goldbergesque heating system — a system with more moving parts than you can imagine — falls down on the job and results in the dreaded Red Screen of Death.

Let's step back a moment before we go down the rabbit hole of the Cheakamus Crossing District Energy System (DES), an act of increasing DESperation for many.

Suppose you turn up your thermostat to engage your typical baseboard heater heating system and after a few minutes you realize things aren't getting any warmer. You're not a complete technical idiot so you slide the thermostat back down and then, slowly, slide it back up. Did it click? Suppose it didn't. You might check your circuit breaker panel. Breaker thrown? Reset and try the thermostat again. Ah, warmth.

No breaker thrown and no thermostat click? Thermostat problem. A new one will set you back $18 at Home Depot for a cheapy that does the job or $250 for the most expensive one they sell that will so utterly confuse you, you'll have to ask your 10-year-old how to program it.

No breaker but the thermostat clicks? Baseboard heater problem. A couple of hundred bucks at the most and anyone smart enough to know they should throw the breaker before they twist a couple of wires together can install it themselves.

And while I'm personally facing the prospect of spending a couple of thousand bucks for a new forced-air furnace at Smilin' Dog, I can't complain. The old one dates from the early 1970s and has cost me less than $20 for filters in the 14 years I've owned it.

The point? Most heating systems are pretty simple, pretty reliable technology. Fuel is the expensive component of most heating systems, not the bits that turn fuel into heat.

Unless you live in an ever-so-green, social-engineering experiment of bleeding-edge heating technology like the DES at Cheakamus Crossing. The RMOW was the principle advocate for the DES system. In theory, it was supposed to capture the otherwise wasted heat from Whistler's sewage treatment plant effluent, use that heat to warm up a fluid that was pumped throughout the various housing buildings at CC where heat pumps in individual residential units would use it to circulate hot water throughout the floors and radiant heaters installed throughout owners' houses.

In 1,100 words, I can't begin to describe how the various heat exchangers, pumps, valves and other bits are supposed to work together. But the DES was designed to save energy and, if not save heating costs for the residents of CC, at least be on par with alternate heating systems.

But the reality is vastly different. Problems began long before the two-year warranty period was up. Heat pumps failed, water pumps failed, some floors were warm, some cold, operating instructions were missing, and while the system engineering took variables such as flow and input/output temperatures into account, it totally failed to take the system's weakest link into account — the human factor.

Quite simply, the various components that make up CC resident's heating systems are too complex for most people to even begin to understand. Layer onto this design complexity a need for regular maintenance, testing and vigilance and you've got a recipe for disaster.

And the stories of disaster are manifold. Too many residents have had to dig into their pockets for thousands of dollars to replace components that shouldn't have failed for decades but failed within years. Whatever savings there may be in the system have been eaten up many times over by the repair costs too many residents have had to face.

In the rush to meet an Olympic deadline, there is ample evidence of slipshod installations. There are questions about whether the manufacturer who supplied the heat pumps — the heart of each system — experienced labour disputes resulting in defective units. There is evidence the fluid flowing through the DES from the waste water treatment plant is full of sludge and is mostly tap water.

What there aren't though, are any answers. Whistler Development Corporation, which built CC, can't even seem to come up with a list of contractors who installed the systems. B.C. Hydro, which was going to undertake a survey to compare the performance of the system relative to district energy systems in other B.C. jurisdictions, cancelled it part way through the year. The RMOW now wants to conduct an "efficiency" study of the system.

This is nonsense. And it is grossly unfair.

Why is this an RMOW issue? Two reasons. First, it was the RMOW who pushed for this system. Second, every single CC resident pays the RMOW for supplying the DES warm water to their house. In aggregate, the RMOW collects almost $200,000 yearly in fees. They own the system.

And if we need a third reason, CC residents can't opt out of the DES. They're stuck with it. They'll pay for it forever. The people who come after them will pay for it.

And the RMOW wants to know if it's efficient? Whether it's efficient or not is immaterial. It's broken. BROKEN. As in never right to begin with.

The equities in this case are overwhelming, just as living with this nightmare of a heating system is for the residents of CC. The RMOW demanded it. WDC built it. No one ensured it was properly installed. No one ensured it was fine-tuned as called for. No one wants to take responsibility for it. The residents have to live with it, and pay through the teeth for it and live in palpable fear that the damnable thing is going to bankrupt them.

And if that's not enough, let's not lose sight of the fact the residents of CC have gone into debt to help Whistler build desired social infrastructure — affordable housing for themselves and the worker bees who come after them.

They don't deserve to be jerked around like this.


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